The sports games market always belonged to EA.
In its ‘90s heyday it was renowned for creating the finest licensed sports sims around, launching timeless franchises – from NBA to FIFA.
With EA's marketing muscle and the power of the official licence, EA Sports had become a sales force worldwide.
But with commercial success almost guaranteed, the development teams – most of which can be found in the firm's luxurious Vancover studio – became complacent. By 2005 EA Sports had turned into an average publishing label, with a bloated line-up and a frustrated community of fans.
With its reputation on the line, EA's top brass had to re-think its strategy and bring in fresh blood. It needed somebody with sports experience, somebody who has re-launched brands successful before and knew the games market inside out. Somebody like Xbox boss Peter Moore.
TURNING THE TIDE
Upon joining the publisher, the former Sega boss and Reebok exec set about systematically cutting the number of games the studio was working on. He brought on new staff and focused them on bringing the quality back to EA Sports.
Three years later and EA Sports is a company transformed. It is no-longer a studio that just makes sales hits – it makes critical ones too. And its newfound confidence is clear to see when walking through the Vancover offices. The staff seem happy while the walls are adorned with awards for last year's NHL and FIFA titles.
In fact FIFA is the perfect example of EA Sports' transformation.
Once the jewel in the EA line-up, by 2005 FIFA had become distinctly second rate compared to Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer. But with a new engine the series was revitalised, and last year's FIFA 10 became the highest rated sports game on PS3 and 360.
It was the result Moore had demanded as he attempted to realise the dream of turning EA Sports into the biggest sports brand in the world – something that stood sholder-to-shoulder with the likes of ESPN, Sky, Nike and Adidas, not pandered to them.
The only thing we look at that ranks sports brands is Forbes magazine, and this year we're ranked seventh,” says Moore.
We feel we are bigger than that. There are very few brands in the world that have five million people every day interacting with them in a deep way, which we do through our games. With the right demographic of 18 to 34 year-old males, we are right up there with a Nike, or a ESPN or a Sky Sports.”
Those other brands are already taking notice, he adds. EA Sports is no longer the companion to them, it's often the centrepiece: As part of our brand expansion, Sky Sports and ESPN are utilising EA Sports tech to analyse what is going on during the World Cup. We need to look at things that allow people to touch EA Sports without buying a video game. Through our relationship with IMG, we have apparel; we have backpacks, watches, glasses – everything you would expect from a sports brand.
Anywhere in the world when I tell people what I do, seven times out of 10 they bark back ‘it's in the game,' which is a great thrill for me.”
Indeed, EA Sports has never seen itself as a video games company that builds sports titles, but rather a sports company that makes video games. And that is clear to see in Vancouver. The studio boasts a high-tech gym, basketball court, football pitch and more – hardly the facilities you'd expect at your average games developer.
But this is no average games company. It doesn't develop titles for gamers, it builds products for sports fans, and this is why Moore feels EA Sports can challenge its more traditional sporting competitors.
In recent years Metacritic has become the buzzword at EA Sports as the firm moved to transform its franchises into critical darlings.
Metacritic scores were worked into the development teams' objectives, and the hardest task fell to the FIFA crew, who were challenged by Moore to go out and win a 90 Metacritic rating.
Although the effectiveness of Metacritic is open for debate, using it has paid dividends for EA. Not only did the quality of its games improve but sales did too, as European marketing director Jon Rosenblatt explains: Metacritic elevates the buzz for title and it elevates pre-orders. It is hugely important,” he says.
Back in 2003 to 2005 we weren't even close to the Metacritic scores we are at today, and if you compare the FIFA install base back then, we weren't seeing the numbers we've got now. Back then Pro Evolution across Europe had a stranglehold on us. We were really struggling against Konami. But improved quality of gameplay, innovation and marketing has all added to what has become the best football experience on console. As we increased our market share we increased our Metacritic, and there is undoubtedly a pattern behind that.”
Although Metacritic has been central to the company's transformation, Moore feels it is time to look beyond the score aggregation sites' metrics.
I've taken the entire FIFA team out for dinner for a tremendous celebration for what they did on FIFA 10, because they not only delivered a 90 they delivered a 91,” continues Moore.
In terms of what I want from 11, it is difficult to tell them to go and get a 92 or 93. It is almost impossible to take an iterative annual sports title and get it into the mid-90s. There are no plot lines, no boss characters, no map packs. There will be metrics that I work into their objectives, but I don't think it will be around Metacritic.
Here in the US Robin Hood just come out and it has been ripped apart by the critics, but it made $40m in the first weekend. There is a bunch of games that sell millions of units that only get a mid-70s Metacritic.
There were challenges five years ago in regards quality at EA that has all been put to bed. There were 20 titles with a Metacritic of 80 plus in our fiscal year. You can break Metacritic down and say ‘We can get two extra points by doing this' but it may not actually enhance the gamers' experience, and that is where there is a line we have to be careful we don't cross. It is a bit of a slippery slope if you focus everything on Metacritic.”
THE DIGITAL AGE
EA Sports still puts quality at the heart of what it does. Developers from its highly acclaimed FIFA and NHL titles have even begun helping out on the firm's other franchisees to help improve the overall experience. But it has become less of a worry for the management team, which is now switching its focus towards what Moore calls the digitalisation of our business.”
By 2015 you will see a company that still has its core franchises, so Madden, FIFA, NBA and Mixed Martial Arts, and you'll see a lot more of it delivered digitally,” continues Moore.
We of course have to adhere to the terms and conditions of our platform partners – Microsoft and Sony in particular, one would hope that Nintendo will catch-up from a digital perspective, which I believe they will eventually.”
EA Sports has seen great response to the FIFA Ultimate Team DLC and is convinced that more and more gamers will be buying downloadable content in the years to come as they see digital updates as an alternative to new titles.
What our consumers are telling us, and the growth that we are seeing, is that the preference now is not to buy lots of games, but to spend more money on fewer games,” says SVP of development Andrew Wilson.
In fiscally challenging times, maybe a gamer won't buy three games anymore, maybe they'll buy two and spend the other 30 on extendable content, on experiences they know they love.”
Moore adds: FIFA 11 has become the jewel in the cro
The sports games market always belonged to EA.